Meet Me In Hard-to-Love Places:
The Heart and Science of Relationship Success
To build successful relationships, it is essential to address the pain and emotional wounds that you carry from past relationships, particularly from your childhood relationships with your parents. If you were not raised by your parents, you can think of your primary caregivers whenever parents are mentioned in this book. Your childhood relationships with your parents are the foundation from which you built your relationship with yourself, with others and with life. When a house has a damaged or improperly built foundation, renovations and upgrades to upper levels will not correct or compensate for the underlying instability. Similarly, superficial relationship repairs will not heal your deeper relationship wounds. To build inspiring relationships—with yourself and with another—you need to restore the foundation from which you can love yourself and love another.
Emotional and psychological wounds from childhood relationships are known as “attachment trauma” in the field of Attachment Theory. As outlined in Chapter 2, attachment trauma is something we all have to some degree, and most people have more than they realize. Of course, it would be nice if you could simply leave your wounds in the past and forget about them, but your brain is not designed to do that. Your brain is designed to implicitly remember unresolved trauma and pain so that it can protect you from getting hurt again by anything that seems or feels similar to the original painful event. Unfortunately, the part of the brain that remembers those earlier events and wants to protect you from future harm cannot differentiate between the dynamics of current intimate adult relationships and the dynamics of past childhood relationships, be they nurturing or traumatic.
Certainly, there are several important elements that constitute great relationships—good communication, healthy boundaries, and effective support, to name a few—but without attending to attachment trauma, a relationship relying on these elements alone will be tenuous or lacking in growth and deeper intimacy. This is because most of how we behave and act is driven by the unconscious mind. It is possible to change behaviour through conscious attention and effort. Mindfulness, an awareness practice embedded in eastern spiritual traditions and becoming increasingly popular in the west, is a powerful tool for changing behaviour. However, mindfulness takes consistent practice and is not easy to do when there is conflict that activates unresolved wounds. Conversely, when attachment trauma is healed, behaviour changes more easily because the unconscious triggers are no longer firing and subverting attempts to change unhealthy relationship dynamics into healthy ones.
In the many presentations, workshops, and courses I have given, I have often asked people if they would like to have an inspiring relationship. Not surprisingly, almost everyone says yes. And why wouldn’t they say yes? Wonderful relationships—be they romantic, platonic, familial, or professional—are some of the most precious treasures of life. However, I don’t think it is completely true that people want inspiring relationships. I believe that most people, myself included, harbour facets of themselves—parts of their psyches created due to their attachment trauma—that are afraid of a truly inspiring relationship. Unless we heal our attachment trauma, those parts will keep us from creating beautiful relationships and rewarding lives. Without healing, those traumatized parts will prevent us from having the confidence to accept that it is safe to open up and trust in love.
This book will help you understand more about how your brain and psychological development were shaped by your experience of relationship with your parents, as well as how your childhood development and attachment trauma influence your adult relationships. I am not suggesting you unpack, analyze, and process every memory and detail of your childhood. The goal is not to find every last broken piece of your childhood and glue it back together with hours and hours of talking and emoting. You can apply the information in this book to yourself and to your relationships and rebuild your foundation for love, even if you remember little or nothing from your childhood.
Spending your energy on blaming your parents or anyone else for the wounds you carry is also not recommended, unless it is a doorway into a process for resolving your pain. Each of us is responsible for what we do with the trauma we carry, and each of us has the opportunity to pass along healthier relationship behaviours and beliefs to the generations to come.
Knowing how our childhood relationships affect our adult relationships can help us have a lot more compassion for others and for ourselves. And compassion is the ground upon which to build a foundation for love. Attachment Theory also helps us become more aware of the underlying relationship patterns and dynamics that lead to arguments and stuck places, and it shows us possibilities for transforming them.
If you are currently single, now is a wonderful time to learn about and to heal your attachment trauma. Doing so will not only help you steer clear of painful relationships, it will also give you a much richer and more inspiring experience of being single. In addition, more awareness and healing of your attachment trauma will help you have better relationships with family, with friends, and with your life. If you are currently in a relationship, my hope is that the information in this book will give you a better understanding of what is working well in your relationship, what isn’t, why it isn’t, and what you can do about it.
Meet Me in Hard-to-Love Places is a synthesis of the different fields I have trained in and of the knowledge and insights I have gained from my relationships and from teaching workshops and courses on building successful relationships. This book includes information on some of the parts of the brain—and the nervous system in general—involved in relationship. The information presented here is necessarily a simplification of a vastly complicated series of biological interactions inside and outside the nervous system, many of which are not fully understood. It is not meant to be an exhaustive examination of how the brain and the rest of the nervous system function. I am very curious about neuroscience, but I am not a neuroscientist. The brain is magnificently complex, and what we know about it keeps evolving. I am grateful for the support I have received in learning, interpreting and presenting this material, and I take responsibility for any errors and critical omissions. If the science in these pages does not seem up-to-date or accurate to you, I would be delighted if you would provide me with any scholarly sources that would help me improve a future edition of this book.
Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB), Attachment Theory, and Nonviolent Communication (NVC, also known as Compassionate Communication) are the main fields drawn from for the information in this book. Together, these three fields offer a comprehensive understanding of relationship dynamics, patterns, and attachment trauma, as well as powerful tools for building healthier brains and relationships. They also offer keys to transforming the parts of your psyche that are afraid of intimate relationships.
Although IPNB, Attachment Theory and NVC offer a great deal of valuable information, I do not recommend that you attempt to think or analyze your way into the relationship you are dreaming of. I suggest instead that you put the information in this book into practice, experiment with it, and use it to build a deeper relationship with your heart’s innate intuition and wisdom. The most important relationship you will ever have is the one with yourself. Listening for and following your deepest truth is one of the key ingredients for that relationship to thrive. Healing your wounds opens the path to deeper and more skilful listening.
Because so much of what happens in adult relationships corresponds to childhood events and relationships with parents, we will explore an Attachment Theory and IPNB perspective on how a parent’s capacity to nurture and bond with their children affected their children’s early development. What Attachment Theory and IPNB show is that deficiencies in nurturing capacity are passed along from parent to child to grandchild, unless there has been support to heal the attachment trauma.
Parents’ nurturing and bonding capacities are also very much impacted by societal and cultural circumstances, paradigms, and ideologies. In other words, parents do the best they can as they contend with, for example:
- the loss of extended family and community support
- inadequate maternity leaves and government services
- work demands
- misinformed parenting advice that includes leaving babies to cry, denying children the nurturing physical contact they need, punishment-and-reward-based motivation, and various other non-nurturing strategies that leave children feeling conditionally loved, emotionally distant from their parents, and very insecure about themselves and the world
Even if the above-mentioned issues are being adequately addressed, parents still have their own wounds to heal. Few things activate unresolved attachment trauma like your own children. Clearly, these layers and complexities make parenting one of the most challenging adventures humans embark upon in their lifetimes.
Reading information about the adverse ways in which children are impacted by the actions of their parents can stimulate difficult or painful emotions, and old memories may surface. If this happens for you, I encourage you to go through the Self-Empathy Process (Chapter 7, Practice 1). Also, I highly recommend you reach out for guidance and help. Receiving support has been an integral part of my own inner work on attachment trauma, and I cannot overstate the critical role it plays in the healing process. Often my inner work goes deeper and is more transformative when I receive support from a skilful therapist or empathy buddy (Chapter 7, Practices 2, 3, 4). Our attachment trauma occurred at its outset in the context of relationship with another. Thus, engaging in inner work with support from another can more powerfully shift negative beliefs about ourselves, about relationships, and about life.
In various parts of the book, I have intentionally used the pronouns “they,” “them,” and “their” when referring to a non-specific person in examples and explanations of concepts. I chose to do this to respect and reflect the gender diversity of humanity.
Finally, in order to give to you a sense of my experiences and adventures in healing my own attachment trauma, I have included lyrics from a number of my songs along with excerpts from my blog Where the Heart Meets the Road. By including these personal accounts, I hope to convey that the path of removing barriers to love and cultivating inspiring relationships takes courage, time, support, and commitment. The journey can get difficult and discouraging, but few other paths are as rewarding and hold as much potential for beauty, creativity, passion, and love.
Where the Heart Meets the Road Blog Post
Oh my, she smells good, fresh and free of baggage (which is, of course, a fragrance infused with my wishful thinking, but I’ll savour it anyway).
Several years ago I decided to take a year off from relationships and dating. Another relationship had ended and had failed to save me from my wounds and from whatever inner work I needed to do to heal those wounds.
Not long after that relationship ended, I was meditating in a large circular room when a geyser of emotion erupted from some old pipes in the cellar of my psyche. Anger and sorrow took turns flushing and scrubbing and wringing me out. It seemed like more than just the pain from the loss of a relationship; it felt like the dam holding back a lifetime of relationship pain had burst open.
When it was over, an epiphany dropped into my lap: It’s time to take a relationship-fast, it’s time to fall in love with my own broken heart, it’s time to commit to myself. I’d certainly had periods of being single before, but had never used the time intentionally—to learn, heal, grow and answer the deeper calling of my life’s purpose. With trepidation and determination I set out to do just that.
Leaning against her feels like leaning into heaven. It’s all I can do to keep an eye on my heartache and remember my relationship-fast. Where did I put my resolve?
I moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and, let me tell you, there are some beautiful, vibrant, inspiring, and wonderful women there. I could have adopted all kinds of strategies to avoid connecting with women, but I chose to make friends with women and be upfront and honest about my relationship-fast. It was quite a challenge, downright painful and a little crazy-making at times, but it was one of the most important things I’ve ever done.
We hug and my heart aches, the longing swells and ripens like low-hanging fruit begging to be picked before dropping to the ground. It’s a familiar ache that enjoins me to throw caution over the cliff, to cross my fingers, dive in and hope that a beautiful woman can save me. It’s all I can do to turn toward the ache and let it know that we’re in this together. “You and me, my dear old lonely heartache, together we are going to fall to the ground and bruise and rot and compost into something new.”
My highly uncalculated and unconscious strategy in the past was to fall head over heels in love and plunge into relationships, dreaming of a happily-ever-after in which the bliss of romance sorts everything out for me. This dream was so strong that I tried the strategy a couple of times even after I became aware of what I was doing (well, maybe half-aware). In hindsight, the tough, deep down, grubby truth is that I was hoping a relationship would take care of me, heal my wounds, open the ground of my being and replant the self-acceptance and trust that was uprooted many years ago. But I did not realize the extent of my wounds, and I had no idea how to heal them. Unfortunately, because I didn’t have the skills and knowledge of taking responsibility for healing my wounds, I would blame my girlfriends for the pain I felt when those wounds were inevitably opened. Oops… Cringe… Regret…
Although it seems obvious now, I didn’t think that befriending women I was attracted to while remaining single would bring up so much heartache and inner conflict. It’s been a slippery path into an inner world of confused and entangled parts: the past and the present, fear and intuition, love and longing. But it’s a change from the confusion and entanglement that happens within a relationship. By sticking to my relationship-fast and sitting in the discomfort, I can let go of solving anything and just feel and listen, listen and feel. Presence has a way of putting things in their right place. When I sit on the cushion to meditate, or connect with an empathy buddy and embrace what is arising, the past, fear, and longing sift upwards, and I can see them more clearly and feel them more deeply and give them the embrace they’ve been waiting for. Grieving. Lots of grieving. “It’s about time,” my heart says, with tender exasperation. Who knew that grief, when fully embraced, opens to so much sweetness, beauty, and creativity?
I’d love to tell you that the determination I felt at the beginning of my relationship-fast remained strong, but lately I’ve been bumbling and fumbling, grasping and groping. Wavering. My heartache seems always ready for another round. But there is a beautiful shift happening, too. The old hope for an ending, for a final break-through to whatever I thought I would become (someone who is happy and composed all the time) is dissolving. Certainly, it’s not always easy to feel and embrace it all, but there is always something magical and beautiful, exquisite at times, when I don’t run away. And, wouldn’t you know, I’m writing more songs and playing my guitar more often and singing more freely. I’m running and hiking and biking, and my work is more meaningful than ever. More and more I move through a wide and colourful range of emotions, rather than live within the confines of “fine.” An old memory of what it means to be truly alive is slowly surfacing.
With longing and fear straining to constrict my throat and tie my tongue, I tell her I’m not available for a relationship. My body relaxes. I can trust myself. I make another date with my broken heart.
As described in the above blog post, several years ago I decided to take a break from romantic relationships with women and focus on my relationship with myself. I wanted to see if I could really come alive as a single person. I was not done with relationships, but I was tired of the struggles and of not experiencing the love I was looking for. For years I had had the sense that there was something inside that I was avoiding. It was time to take a look. From studying and teaching Attachment Theory and Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) I realized that deeper work on my attachment trauma would be a good place to start.
Before training in Nonviolent Communication (NVC), Attachment Theory, and IPNB, I was a white water river guide and kayaker. It was an adventurous life exploring wild and magnificent creeks, rivers and mountains from Alaska down to California and in places like the Canadian Rockies and Costa Rica. By travelling through vast wilderness, I experienced some of the most inspiring and breathtaking moments of my life, and yet I had little sense of purpose or vision for my life. I was addicted to adventure. I did not know it at the time, but I was running from my past, trying to outrun my wounds, trying to hide from doing the work necessary for a healthier relationship with myself and for finding a deeper purpose and meaning for my life.
You do not have to be a therapist to guess that my relationships with women during that time were not successful. They would begin with immense passion and inspiration but would inevitably cycle through one quarrel after another before crumbling apart. I would start as a joyful, exuberant, charming, sensitive and poetic lover, only to end up a critical, defensive, distant, and difficult person to be with. As my relationships drew to their inevitable end, I would fantasize about all the amazing things I would do if I were single. However, not long after leaving a relationship, instead of doing the things I had dreamed of doing, I would instead fantasize about and search for the next woman with whom I would fall in love.
Eventually, I stopped travelling and thrill-seeking, and took concerted steps toward a more purposeful life. I fell in love with a woman who was practising Nonviolent Communication (NVC). After some initial resistance, I too began studying NVC. Once I understood the intentions and principles of NVC, I began to appreciate it. I was very relieved to learn that, though NVC includes a process for speaking that can seem formulaic at first, its fundamental purpose is to cultivate connection with others and with oneself. As a lover of poetry, I had no interest in expressing myself in formulaic ways. However, for me the deepest lesson of NVC was that it represented not a formula for speaking, but rather a pathway to connect more deeply with myself. I discovered, often through difficult lessons, that connection with others, and with my life in general, does not work if I am not connected to myself. Moreover, I discovered that connecting to my authentic, whole-hearted self is more difficult and requires much more depth and inner work than I had imagined.
In the early days of my personal NVC practice, I focused mostly on talking through conflict with others and cultivating connection through dialogue. As you will read below, that kind of dialogue was a feature of my primary relationship. Today, my practice is much more about connecting with facets of myself that I disowned or left behind, which is an ever-enriching process. This approach to self-connection includes the Jungian concept of The Shadow—unconscious parts of ourselves that we reject or disown—and is discussed further in Chapter 2. The more I restore connection to those disowned parts of myself, the more empathy and creativity I have for connecting intimately with others and with life. Though I do not always see it immediately, when I become entrenched in arguments with others, I am often projecting a disowned part of myself onto them. When an argument is not resolving into connection, despite my best attempt to communicate, I go looking for disowned parts that are likely at play. If I find and connect with my disowned part, the outer conflict often resolves much more effectively and easily. NVC has powerful tools, such as empathy, for helping me connect with those parts of myself that I disowned in the past.
The more I learned about NVC, the more I appreciated its potential. After some intensive NVC training and practice, I took a step toward deeper purpose and meaning in my life and began teaching NVC. I married the woman who introduced me to NVC, and we worked very hard at our relationship. Although the practice of NVC was extremely helpful in resolving our conflicts, the amount of time and energy we spent on conflict was not sustainable for me and was out of balance with the amount of harmony, happiness, and fun I wanted. I remember feeling confounded and dismayed by how often conflict would occur between us. I did not realize it then, but I was not digging in deeply and consistently enough to what was going on inside me. Without realizing it, I projected disowned parts and unresolved attachment trauma onto my ex-wife, even though I was using NVC language to the best of my ability.
Deciding to end our marriage was one of the hardest decisions I have made. That my ex-wife and I remain caring and supportive friends is, I believe, due to the time and care we took with ending our marriage, the separation ceremony we had with family and friends, and our commitment to healing our attachment trauma.
Fall flat on your face
There’s nothing like learning the hard way, sometimes
But your soul is sitting there waiting
Waiting for you to embrace
The hard and the heavy and the helpless places
It’s your shadow collection, and it’s worth more than you know
Did you go inside when winter tried to show up early
Did you find a window when the birds stuck around
Did you love the ice and snow for no other reason than to get closer
No one knows where this is going
Have you heard the news
The part that you play is priceless
We need you now, I need you now
Don’t believe everything you’re holding on to
The other side of the story is just beginning
Did you lose yourself in a painful past that pulled you under
Did you climb your way out by the skin of your tears
Did you love what’s left for no other reason than to get closer
Let’s fly in the face of perfection; this is not a race we can win
Once we give up the finish line, we can make love with losing
A masterpiece in the unmaking, a work of art that never ends
A swansong of new beginnings
Where the unprepared mind meets the edge of existence
Did you love your grip when you were trying to hold it all together
Did you love being lost when you didn’t have a clue
Did you love unraveling when everything was falling apart around you
And everything was falling together
And everything was falling apart
And everything was falling